The Problem with Οὐσία: Substance, Essence, or something else?

This is part 2 in my series on translating Aristotle (find part 1 here). This post is, in the document where I am recording my research, a footnote to the second translation of Aristotle's Metaphysics Z, book 1. However, it is also significantly longer than the second translation, so, I'm posting it as an individual article. In translating Aristotle we run into all kinds of difficult terms, and there is no consensus on how to translate them. Here are my observations, and some of my research on an important term in Aristotle's Metaphysics.

Οὐσία is not only one of the most important philosophical terms of art in Aristotle, but it is also, and perhaps because of this, one of the most difficult Greek words to translate. Anybody who would say otherwise is simply not familiar with the debates surrounding the proper translation of this word. As can be seen in the above comparison of the translations, οὐσία is commonly translated as “substance”, however, the same authors who translate substance, in other contexts translate the same word as “essence” (cf. Ross, 1015a14-16, 1017b22-23. Tredennick, 1015a14-16, 1017b22-23. Tricot, 1017b22-23.). One of the major difficulties in translating any work of importance, and the cause of many nightmares for translators, is that one word can have many meanings, and one must never assume that the author being translated always uses the same meaning of the word in question. For example, the word ‘Bank’ can refer to a place where we deposit money, or to the side of a river, or it can be used as a verb to refer to an action that one undertakes while driving. As such word meaning must frequently be determined by the immediate context of the word. This becomes touchy when all of the potential meanings of one word would work as appropriate translations in a given context, but, each of the potential meanings of that word would give a different meaning to the phrase. The actual meaning of the term must always be determined by its use in the context.

By the time that we arrive at Aristotle’s analysis of Being in Metaphysics Z, we have already passed through the section of the Metaphysics in which Aristotle gave an analysis of the different ways in which Being is said. One of the ways in which Being is said, and, according to Aristotle, the primary way in which Being is said, is οὐσία. The problem is that οὐσία itself is said in many ways, as we will see in the third chapter of Metaphysics Z where Aristotle says that it is used to talk about, first of all, the “τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι” which, literally translated, means “the What-is-Be-ing” (we will come back to this phrase as it is also highly debated, however, for the time being, it is worth while noting that Ross and Tredennick both translate it, in this section, as “essence”.); secondly, the “τὸ καθόλου”, which, translated literally, means “the whole” (this word is translated by Ross and Tredennick as “the universal”); thirdly, the “τὸ γένος”, which simply means the “genus”; and finally, the “τὸ ὑποκείμενον”, which in this section is frequently translated as “substrate (cf. Tredennick)” or “substratum (cf. Ross)”, yet, which can also be translated as “something definite which underlies” something (cf. Ross, 1028a26-31), “the subject” (cf. Tredennick, 1028a26-31. Ross, 1019a5-6.), “the underlying subject” (cf. Apostle, 1028a26-31). Sometimes, due to the baggage that is attached to words such as substrate and subject, it is better to translate a Greek word literally. The most literal translation of this fourth sense of οὐσία, ὑποκείμενον, is “the foundational principle that underlies a thing”. (It is important to note that in 1019a5-6 Aristotle equates οὐσία with ὑποκείμενον and tells us that it is the primary meaning of οὐσία, “ἐπεὶ δὲ τὸ εἶναι πολλαχῶς, πρῶτον μὲν τὸ ὑποκείμενον πρότερον, διὸ ἡ οὐσία πρότερον,” (literally: “Since, the To Be (εἶναι) has many meanings, first of all (before all things, or in the first place), the foundational principle of a thing (ὑποκείμενον) is prior, therefore, the οὐσία is prior.” Ross translates this sentence as follows: “If we consider the various senses of ‘being’, firstly the subject [ὑποκείμενον] is prior, so that substance [οὐσία] is prior.” Tredennick is a little bit more explicit, translating as follows: “And since ‘being’ has various meanings, (a) the substrate [ὑποκείμενον], and therefore substance [οὐσία], is prior.”).) So, according to Aristotle, οὐσία is used in four ways, it is said of the: (1) “What-is-Be-ing”, (2) “whole” or “universal”, (3) “genus” and, (4) “the foundational principle that underlies a thing”. Aristotle does not hesitate to use οὐσία to refer to all of these concepts, which is part of why it is so difficult to give a definition of οὐσία that satisfies all philosophers. (The situation is complicated even further when one considers that “τὸ ὄν” (which is properly translated, “the Be-ing”) is said, primarily of οὐσία. So much so that, in Metaphysics Z we are told that the question, “what is τὸ ὄν?”, just is, “what is οὐσία?” (1028b3-4).)

How then do we translate οὐσία? Do we need to have a definition of it before we can translate it? Andrew J. Reck, in his presidential address, “Being and Substance”, begins by noting that “It is a philosophical commonplace that, according to the traditional criteria of definition, Being cannot be defined. (Andrew J. Reck, “Being and Substance,” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 31, no. 4 (June 1978), 533.)” If Be-ing cannot be defined, and Substance is the primary way in which Be-ing is said, is it even possible to define Substance? Regardless of the answer to this question many people have tried, and the debate has been informative. We cannot consider every attempt to give a proper translation of οὐσία, but we can consider the attempts of two of the greatest philosophers of our modern era to attempt to translate it. Joseph Owens, in his doctoral dissertation, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, begins by arguing that both substance and essence are poor translations of οὐσία (Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, 2nd ed. (Toronto: PIMS, 1963), 144-147, 152fn63. He does not change his opinion concerning the inadequacy of the English words ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ as can be seen from his later book, Aristotle’s Gradations of Being in Metaphysics E-Z, (Joseph Owens, Aristotle’s Gradations of Being in Metaphysics E-Z, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007), 16, 91-92.). Owens then goes on to argue that probably the best and least controversial way of translating οὐσία is by the term entity (Ibid., 149-151). Alan Gewirth, in response to the first edition of Owen’s dissertation, argues that what worries Owens, and motivates him to suggest a different term for translation purposes is a non-issue, and suggest that substance and essence should be kept as valid terms for translation (Alan Gewirth, “Aristotle’s Doctrine of Being,” The Philosophical Review, vol. 62, no.4 (Oct., 1953), 578-80.) Owens, in a book published post-humously, seems to have changed his position concerning the translation of οὐσία. Near the beginning of Aristotle’s Gradations of Being in Metaphysics E-Z Owen’s notes that in light of difficulties with the English word Substance, and the uninspiring character of Entity many modern authors tend to “leave the Greek ousia untranslated and to use it as an English word. But if ‘beingness’ is now acceptable, it serves the purpose neatly enough in instances like that of the present text. It cannot, of course, be used in general as a translation of ousia, since you cannot speak of a tree or a dog as a ‘beingness’ in the way each is referred to  in Greek as an ousia. (Owens, Aristotle’s Gradations of Being, 16-17.) Reck, however, noting his indebtedness to Owens, argues that ‘beingness’ simply is the best translation of the Greek οὐσία, “it may be helpful to recall that Aristotle’s Greek term for ‘substance’ is οὐσία, that οὐσία is a gerund derived from the feminine participial form of the verb ‘to be,’ and that its literal translation is ‘beingness.’ (Reck, Being and Substance, 539.)”

Owens later, in Aristotle’s Gradations of Being, notes that the word that would be used to translate οὐσία must, “carry the force of the characteristic that makes a thing be. Likewise it has to signify, simultaneously, the thing that has the beingness… (Owens, Aristotle’s Gradations of Being, 92.)” He then goes on to note the difficulties with substance and essence, and then notes that “The term ‘entity’ in English can be used for a concrete thing as well as for the abstract characteristic. It can accordingly function as a translating word for any of the instance of ousia in Aristotle. But it is a dull word, and does not carry any of the vitality and relevance associated with one’s own personal property, as does ousia in Greek or ‘substance’ in English. (Ibid.)” Due to the difficulty of translating οὐσία Owen’s concludes that, “But in a rendition of the Aristotelian text itself, the one way of conserving the unity of its meaning throughout all its variations, seems to be the retention of the original Greek term ousia. At least the use of the term ousia allows one to keep aware of the consistency of Aristotle in seeing the singular thing as the primary ousia in a logical context, the form of the sensible thing as the primary ousia [sic.] in a physical context, and the supersensible forms as the primary ousiai (Metaphysics, 12.8.1074b9) in a metaphysical context. (Ibid., 93)”

Martin Heidegger, another great philosopher of the 1900s, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, defined οὐσία as follows: “Ousia, then, can mean both the coming to presence of something that comes to presence and that which comes to presence in the whatness of its look. (Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 193 [138]. The square brackets, per tradition, refer to the pagination in the Niemeyer German edition.) ” This definition of οὐσία seems to be based on his previous contention that : “What grounds and hold together all the determinations of Being we have liste dis what the Greeks experienced without question as the meaning of Being, which they called ousia, or more fully parousia. The usual thoughtlessness translates ousia as ‘substance’ and thereby misses its sense entirely. In German, we have an appropriate expression for parousia in our word An-wesen (coming-to-presence)…In Aristotle’s times, too, ousia was still used in this sense as well as in its meaning as a basic philosophical word. Something comes to presence. It stands in itself and thus puts itself forth. It is. For the Greeks, ‘Being’ fundamentally means presence. (Ibid., 64 [46].)” 

Both Heidegger and Owens note important aspects (ideas) that are intrinsic to the term οὐσία: presence or Be-ing, and the whatness of the thing that is Be-ing or Presenc-ing itself. Both of these notions, as well as the notion of possession of the whatness of the Be-ing by the thing that is Be-ing must be included in any word that translates οὐσία. As such, it is my opinion that it is better not to translate οὐσία, but to leave it as it is in the Greek text. In some contexts Aristotle puts more emphasis on the whatness of the Be-ing, and in other contexts he puts more emphasis on the Be-ing of the Be-ing. However, every time he uses οὐσία all of these aspects are present.

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